Crystal Hefner is ready to tell her story. As the 37-year-old model prepares for the release of her memoir, Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself, the former Girls Next Door star is grappling with the "mixed" feelings she still has toward her late husband, Hugh Hefner.
"He wasn't all good or all evil," Crystal tells Yahoo Entertainment, describing the Playboy founder as a "complex" person.
Crystal met the publishing mogul at a 2008 Halloween party at the Playboy Mansion. She married Hugh in 2012 — months after she initially called off the wedding and the "runaway bride" storyline played out in the press. In her tell-all, she shares deeply personal information about the nearly 10 years they spent together. Crystal recalls having group sex with Hefner the first night they met, "and while there was nothing sexy about it," she calls the experience "surreal."
"This wasn't about making love," she writes. "It was a performance. I was auditioning for a part."
Crystal got the part. She moved in weeks later and quickly rose through the ranks to become one of Hefner's girlfriends alongside "the twins," Karissa and Kristina Shannon. While the seemingly glamorous life behind the Holmby Hills, Calif., mansion's gate had its perks, Crystal details her lonely and isolating life dating Hugh, who she alleges was emotionally abusive. In Yahoo's interview, she compares living at the Playboy Mansion to being in a "cult." (Hugh's previous No. 1 girlfriend, Holly Madison, made similar accusations to Yahoo.)
"It was emotionally abusive and traumatizing. It was hard," Crystal says. "You don't really realize it when you're in it. I did a podcast with two women that were formerly in cults and there's a lot of similarities. It was like a cult there. It was a bubble and a cult and it was hard. It took time away to really understand what I went through there. You know, Playboy, Hef and the whole lifestyle is supposed to be this sexual freedom and expression and all of this stuff. I personally felt anything but free when I was there."
In 2009 Crystal starred alongside the twins on The Girls Next Door, E! Entertainment's second iteration of the show after Hugh's relationships with Madison, Bridget Marquardt and Kendra Wilkinson ended. Crystal says that while Hugh was paid $400,000 per episode, she received nothing. As Hef's girlfriend, she describes the humiliating experience of having to ask him for an allowance every Friday. She writes about being watched all the time, by people on his payroll and by other girls who wanted to take her place. She says she nearly died from plastic surgery complications trying to look like the perfect Playmate.
"Hef had a way of both boosting you up and cutting you down to size, often in the same conversation. I was getting used to being kept constantly on edge like this, constantly under threat," she writes.
In 2010 Hugh "blindsided" Crystal with a marriage proposal. Months later, she abruptly called off the wedding. Crystal confirms she dated Dr. Phil's son Jordan McGraw during that period before ultimately getting back together with Hugh. Upon her return to the mansion, she writes, she "cleaned out the other girlfriends" in order to eliminate "constant competition with other women, Hef making his manipulative little comments to pit us against one another, or make us feel lesser than another woman in his eyes."
Crystal says that when they got back together, their relationship was different. "Because now Hef was afraid of me leaving, and that little power was enough," she writes. The two wed in 2012 — when she was 26 and he was 86 — and in the five years they were married, she was protective of him, their relationship and his legacy ... though it's a complicated one.
Hugh died in 2017 of cardiac arrest, just weeks before the #MeToo movement swept Hollywood. (He also suffered from septicemia, a blood infection, prior to his death, and an E. coli infection.) However, he didn't have his own #MeToo moment until 2022, when horrific allegations against him and the empire he built were detailed in A&E's Secrets of Playboy. He was accused of rape and bestiality, among other troubling allegations. Crystal has complex feelings about the docuseries too.
"Some of it didn't surprise me," she says, calling "a lot" of the allegations true. "I chose not to participate." Crystal claims some people who did participate were not happy with how their stories were told, but doesn't go into detail. "It's a hard topic and [I'm] trying to be sensitive to everyone," she shares.
Madison was among the women who participated in the show. She also detailed some of Hugh's alleged troubling behavior in her own memoir and frequently spoke out against her ex-boyfriend of seven years.
"We were actually following each other for a little while on Instagram, but I do think it's very sensitive," Crystal says when asked if she's talked to Madison. "I wish and hope that we could all be friends at some point. I just wanna get along with Holly, Bridget and Kendra — Kendra and I get along pretty well. I wish we could all get along and put things behind us and we would have a lot in common, but, you know, I'm still waiting for that day to happen, so maybe it will be soon."
Crystal left the mansion after Hugh's death and has been in therapy "to better understand my time there" and "to make sense" of her relationship with the Playboy founder.
"I only discovered what boundaries were recently. I obviously didn't have those [at the mansion]. I'm learning that a lot of his behavior was related to being narcissistic, misogynistic and, you know, really understanding those terms," she shares.
Crystal still talks to three of Hugh's four children from his two previous marriages. She's on the board of his foundation. "I'm deciding whether or not that's something that I want to stay and be a part of, or if that's something I want to walk away from," she tells Yahoo. "I'm still in the mix of it now and just figuring it out as I go."
Hugh always told Crystal to "only say good things" about him after he died, hence the title of the memoir. It's clear in the book that she grapples with feeling like she's betrayed him. But overall, she has no regrets about walking into the mansion 15 years ago.
"Now, I'm in a good place in my life and have real freedom. I learned a lot and maybe it took me longer than others, but I'm here now and I appreciate the journey," she explains. "You try not to beat yourself up about it. I'm like, 'Oh, why was I so stupid?' But then you're like, 'OK, the brain isn't even fully formed properly at 21.' I try not to be so hard on myself."
As for life after Hugh, the model says "dating's been hard."
"As I date I notice things from the mansion creeping in ... I was in a couple of bad relationships where I felt myself being maybe controlled a little and manipulated a little. I'm like, 'Whoa, I don't want a rerun of this,'" she adds. "So yeah, it's just learning, healing, growing, and I wrote the book to hopefully help other people as well as myself."
Crystal especially hopes her book helps young women.
"I wish I had a book like this to read when I was 21 before going into the Playboy Mansion," she explains. "It dives into self-worth and self-love and my struggle to get there. So anyone else struggling with self-love and self-acceptance, I hope they're able to read it and get something from it as well."
Only Say Good Things will be available on Tuesday, Jan. 23.